Why cities need a new approach to managing energy disclosure ordinances

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris is underway. Often overlooked at global events like these is the leadership role cities can play.

Best to start with some facts.

Cities generate 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions although they occupy two percent of the world’s surface area. They are responsible for 85 percent of global gross domestic product.

Cities already contain more than half of the world’s population, and are growing exponentially.

The implication is action or inaction by cities is likely to have at least as big of an impact on climate change as anything international policymakers can accomplish.

As an proven incubator of new, creative approaches, cities offer a practical path to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions while saving money, growing the economy, and sidestepping political gridlock.

Potential to shape the climate conversation

More and more cities are passing energy data disclosure laws to demonstrate the economic and environmental benefits of tracking building energy data, and using that data to help drive thoughtful energy efficiency investments.

The typical entry point is ordinances specific to commercial buildings. Regulations vary in terms of the types and sizes of buildings they affect and the forms of transparency they require.

The focus on commercial buildings is obvious.

In the US, this group generates 45% of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet 30 percent of the energy they consume is wasted. Even minor improvement can have major impact. For example, if the energy efficiency of this group improved 10%, the collected savings would be $40 billion per year.

As of last month, the number of cities passing such laws had grown to 15. These include: Atlanta, Austin, Berkeley, Boston, Boulder, Cambridge, Chicago, District of Columbia, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. Several states have joined the movement too, namely California and Washington.

For cities contemplating a building energy performance initiative, support is readily available. A slew of organizations can help, such as Urban Sustainability Directors Network and Institute for Market Transformation.

Art and science of energy ordinance management

Energy disclosure programs stall, suffer overruns and delays, or generally veer off course for several reasons.

For cities, managing disclosure compliance is about more than just collecting data. It's about communicating effectively with people and organizations, and driving action with impact.

The trick is to make it easy for cities to work more effectively and efficiently with building owners to ensure buildings become compliant. This requires an end-to-end approach that helps transform building data into truly collaborative compliance projects.

For example, using flexible search, labels, and contact management functionality enables sustainability program executives to manage compliance workflow effectively in a team and with diverse stakeholders.

A common trait shared by successful compliance projects is the ability to share findings and publish reports. These need to be circulated within an organization, and published publicly when the time is right.

True success comes from a program’s ability to answer a fundamental question: What community impact did the program have in a reasonable time period relative to its goal. This cuts to the core of local government accountability and transparency.

Play to strengths; leverage expertise of others

My company, Building Energy, provides software to cities that want to automate the complexities of energy audit and compliance management. This frees up time for sustainability professionals to envision and implement high-impact programs.

Under contract with U.S. Department of Energy, we created the Building Performance Database (BPD) for benchmarking, and the Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) Platform™. Since then our innovation has continued, from data collection and management through compliance workflow, auditing, and owner outreach.

Things often go askew when cities attempt to develop custom software internally that can be reasonably procured elsewhere. Although somewhat tongue-and-cheek, this is known as “Not Invented Here Syndrome.”

Valuable resources are spent where they aren’t needed rather than where they are needed. And opportunities to stay abreast of continually evolving best practices are missed.

Software development, support, and continuous feature development is expensive. Delays are normal. Cost overruns are frequent. Audit and compliance of energy disclosure ordinances require specific expertise in user experience, data normalization, data management, workflow, and privacy that is difficult to replicate.

Cost issues aside, building and maintaining this technology competence in a sustainability program office, including adding non-critical tasks to an already overburdened IT organization, distracts from city mission: long-term vitality of community.

Boulder and San Francisco are compelling examples of cities staying true to mission by leveraging expertise around them. Now they can focus more energy driving action.

Interested in starting a conversation? Contact me at chris.preston@buildingenergy.com.

In my next blog we will explore the biggest barriers to getting efficiency projects up and running fast: access to capital and financial criteria.

About Building Energy Inc.

Building Energy Inc. is a technology company that combines cleantech, fintech, and information technology to transform the way building owners and service providers generate successful energy and water efficiency projects. Building Energy’s cloud-based software is used to design, implement, and finance energy and resource projects by building owners and managers, energy management companies, and sustainability professionals.